Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Why I Don't Protest

I've said it before, but it's the anniversary today, and most of what's being said has been said before, so I guess I shouldn't let that stop me. There are two major rhetorical positions on the Iraq War, and I don't find either one very satisfying. The first is the one you would expect me to have issue with, and it relies on the following constellation of assertions:

  • Saddam was Evil.
  • Inspections were not working.
  • Invasion was both right and necessary.
  • We are approaching victory.
  • The consequences of failure are unacceptable.
  • Surrendering to our enemies will embolden them.
  • America must fight Al-Qaeda in the Middle East, or we will have to fight them at home.

I'm more sympathetic to the standard opposing position, but I find it difficult to apply the same standards to both arguments and have either one hold up very well. The opposing argument says:

  • The American public was lied to in order to create fear and hostility.
  • Politicians caved to this fear and hostility to authorize a war they knew was unjustified.
  • The government was wildly unrealistic in their expectations for the war.
  • Nobody would have supported the invasion if they had been told up front that after five years, the U.S. would have spent more than half of a billion dollars, seen 4,000 US soldiers killed, 30,000 wounded in battle, another 30,000 requiring medical attention, 145 dead of self-inflicted wounds, and 130,000 still on the ground.
  • The presence of US troops is causing more problems than it solves.
  • The Iraqi government will never take over as long as we continue to maintain a military presence.
  • We need to get out.
  • Sooner is better than later, today is better than tomorrow, yesterday would be the preferred option.

Like I said the first argument is weak, and at times laughable. By point:
  • Hussein was worse than Pinochet, Amin, Castro, Stalin??? The content of a foreign leader's character has never been, and never should be, a primary driving force in US foreign policy.
  • Inspections weren't working in large part because there was nothing to find. Although absence of evidence makes for poor evidence of absence, it should also be noted that the final Blix report in March of 2003 declared that there were no longer substantial hindrances on the inspectors from the Iraqi government. Hussein blinked. We went in anyway.
  • The war has turned out to increase suffering and harm US interests. Nearly any other definition of "right" or "necessary" can be refuted in just as few words.
  • We had two objectives when we went in: Regime Change and removal of WMDs. Done and Done. That's "victory," and we achieved it and have moved well beyond it. What we have now is not a war, and there is no real "victory" or "surrender" possible anymore.
  • The consequences of failure may be unacceptable. This may not prevent us from having to accept them.
  • Beyond the fact that surrender is an inappropriate concept given the context, that even John McCain seems to have no clue who are enemies are, and that emboldening terrorists who are supposedly cowardly by definition creates somewhat of a paradox, it is simply an empirical question.
  • Finally, Al Qaeda was not in Iraq until there were US troops to provide targets in Iraq. This basically means that the argument is "we should fight them over there, so that they don't have to come over here to fight us. It seems we would hate to impose on the terrorists, and make them pack up and follow us to America. Of course, as another option, we could perhaps reduce security at our bases in Europe and advertise our vulnerability there. This is the "We should fight Al Qaeda in NATO countries so that we don't have to fight them at home or in the Middle East" strategy, and it might have the added bonus of helping us to rebuild a coalition (is Poland still with us? I forget).

Unfortunately, no matter how easy it is to point out what people have done wrong and to pick apart their excuses, and no matter how necessary it may be to do so before meaningful steps can be taken going forward, it does almost nothing to help determine what those next steps should be. People who think that being knowledgeable about the reasons to avoid a war automatically translates into being knowledgeable about how to end a war have made a bigger leap than I am capable of making, even if the post-hoc arguments against the war were as credible in February of 2003 as they seem today, which I am just as unsure of. By point:

  • The American public was exaggerated to, in order to create support for the war. The evidence for nuclear materials was bogus, and was known to be bogus. On the other hand, Hussein was known to have experimented with chemical and biological weapons, and the destruction of said weapons was exceedingly difficult to confirm given the lax record keeping, lack of cooperation, and possible ignorance of the Iraq government. Absent free and unfettered inspections, we were left with an increasingly untenable sanctions regime.
  • The only thing that caused Hussein to eventually give in and cooperate fully with sanctions was the imminent threat of assured US military attack. Inspections would never have been sufficient in the context of a refusal on the part of congress to authorize force. Bush used force even after it appeared that the threat of force was sufficient, and for that he will always be culpable, but the AUMF vote was not the clear moral choice many of my compatriots seem to think it should have been, IMHO.
  • The administration was wildly inaccurate in its expectations about the war. I am extremely reluctant to justify or condemn actions based on outcomes that were uncertain at the time. For instance, just because you successfully draw to an inside straight doesn't mean you shouldn't have folded, and just because your opponent has a pair of aces in the hole doesn't mean you shouldn't have gone all in. I'm comfortable saying that the administration was wrong. That they were horribly irresponsible for not examining the range of possibilities and preparing for alternate scenarios. They should have considered that things might turn out the way they did, but I won't say that they should have known things would turn out the way they did. That's hindsight bias and its unfair no matter who you apply it to.
  • Perhaps people would not have supported the war had they known the toll it would take on our treasury and on our military personnel. Of course, no one ever gets to know these things in advance. If the argument from some folks on the left is that this war would have been supportable at a price of 100 billion and 1000 dead US soldiers, it certainly removes a lot of the moral force from the rest of the argument.
  • The consequences of leaving may be positive or negative, and a plausible story will be told in either case. Right now, the hypothesis that leaving will solve more problems than it causes is an open and testable one.
  • The probability of a stable and effective Iraqi government may indeed be low as long as the US military provides a crutch. The probability of a stable government in the absence of that crutch may be higher or lower. Once again, I could make a case either way.
  • Finally, although the sooner we get out, the fewer casualties and debts we should accumulate, I have a moral dilemma. The WMD bit was supposed to be for our interests, but we also promised a better life to Iraqi civilians. What we've given them is somewhere between 100000 and 1000000 premature deaths. For Abrahem and Amira on the street, telling them it's time to stand up and protect themselves seems to me just about as wrong as telling the Iraqi people that our invasion was strictly for their benefit. The American soldiers who have sacrificed life and limb... not to be callous or cavalier, but that sacrifice was voluntary, and we insult their bravery if we suggest otherwise. If we cannot save our soldiers and treasury without simultaneously holding a sincere belief that net bloodshed in the civilian population will decrease, we might be morally obligated to suck it up and take it until we can.

Five years in, and I haven't heard much of anything that sounds like the voice of reason. Baker/Hamilton had some real promise, but it got caught up in the jaws of "War Good" and "War Bad." War simply is what it is at this point. The war was a tragedy. The instability and violence accompanying the occupation following the war continues to be a tragedy. And make no mistake, I would like to see those who have supported this endeavor held accountable for the consequences. On the other hand, this merely puts them in a position where they have little to lose and much to gain by maintaining hope of some future positive outcome, no matter how slim. They also have nothing to gain and will lose either way following a withdrawal. The tragedy will continue as long as we insist on accountability, or until we have instantiated it at the ballot box. Unfortunately, it may well yet continue then.

This is why I don't protest.

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